Review Unsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? Willa Knox and her husband followed all the rules as responsible parents and professionals, and have nothing to show for it but debts and an inherited brick house that is falling apart. The magazine where Willa worked has folded; the college where her husband had tenure has closed. Their dubious shelter is also the only option for a disabled father-in-law and an exasperating, free-spirited daughter. When the family’s one success story, an Ivy-educated son, is uprooted by tragedy he seems likely to join them, with dark complications of his own.

In another time, a troubled husband and public servant asks, How can a man tell the truth, and be reviled for it? A science teacher with a passion for honest investigation, Thatcher Greenwood finds himself under siege: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting work just published by Charles Darwin. His young bride and social-climbing mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his worries that their elegant house is unsound. In a village ostensibly founded as a benevolent Utopia, Thatcher wants only to honor his duties, but his friendships with a woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor threaten to draw him into a vendetta with the town’s powerful men.

Unsheltered is the compulsively readable story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, navigating what seems to be the end of the world as they know it. With history as their tantalizing canvas, these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future. Review


“A return to the more ambitious, grand scale of novels such as The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible…A lively and vividly peopled novel of ideas…Clear throughout the novel is a tension between self-reliance and interdependence.” (The Guardian (feature))

“Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered, will make you weep…But Kingsolver is also downright hilarious…Unsheltered is also a sociopolitical novel tackling real-world issues, especially how we humans navigate profound changes that threaten to unmoor us.” (O, the Oprah Magazine)

“Riveting…A tour de force of fiction…about this dynamic conflict between individual expression and communal belonging…One of the most magical parts of UNSHELTERED is how Kingsolver skillfully blends her two narratives into one unified tale, with past and present repeatedly mirroring each other.”                    (BookPage)

“Kingsolver’s meticulously observed, elegantly structured novel unites social commentary with gripping storytelling…Containing both a rich story and a provocative depiction of times that shake the shelter of familiar beliefs, this novel shows Kingsolver at the top of her game.” (Publishers Weekly (Boxed and Starred review))

“As always, Kingsolver gives readers plenty to think about. Her warm humanism coupled with an unabashed point of view make her a fine 21st-century exponent of the honorable tradition of politically engaged fiction.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

“Exceptionally involving and rewarding…There is much to delight in and think about while reveling in Kingsolver’s vital characters, quicksilver dialogue, intimate moments, dramatic showdowns, and lushly realized milieus…An enveloping, tender, witty, and awakening novel of love and trauma, family and survival, moral dilemmas and intellectual challenges…” (Booklist (starred review))

“Nuanced and convincing…Engrossing.” (Jane Ciabattari, BBC News “Preview”)

“Powerful.” (Book Riot)

“Allegorical UNSHELTERED ties the post-Civil War era to that of Trump…There’s hard-won wisdom here, and profound doubt as to where our future is taking us. Kingsolver’s voice is urgent, eloquent, wily…Her contemporary narrative is laced with wry, genial humor and the 1870s half of her tale is a gripping study of how battling schools of thought can destroy personal lives.” (Boston Globe)

Customer reviews


Kingsolver has been my favorite author for decades, since The Bean Trees swept me away 30 years ago. With Unsheltered, she has given us another gem. The best novels, I believe, are those that defy easy description. Unsheltered is about shelter, which we find in structures, people, nature, and work. It’s about the discoveries of science that are often put up against the ideas of faith. It’s about today’s sad political climate in which our true climate, our Earth, is in crisis. And it’s about people, some living in the 1870s, and some living in our present time, who sheltered for a time in the same neighborhood, the same house, in Vineland, NJ. Kingsolver has built a book that honors the biologists and naturists and shames the shenanigans of our political leaders, revealing what is most important for all of us: finding shelter.

Unsheltered is the story of two people living in different centuries, but in the same house at the corner of Sixth and Plum in the town of Vineland, New Jersey. Both characters are trying to live with the knowledge their home is as unsound as their financial stability is. The world around them is going through major shifts to add to their uncertainty. The story of Willa Knox, in the present, and Thatcher Greenwood in the 1880s, is how each navigates their journey through turbulent times in both their personal live as well as in society in general.

Both characters realize that shelter can be found, even in scary uncertain times, in the bonds created by families and/or friends. Kingsolver uses her characters to talk about the strength of the human spirit to survive.

This is another excellently written Kingsolver novel and she once again creates characters with whom most of us can relate. Her writing is, at times, lyrical.

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